Unlike many Americans, Bryce Dishongh never dreamed of becoming a homeowner.
But he was tired of watching his rent increase year after year and saw owning his own place as a fix to that annoying problem. "The primary reason I wanted to buy a condo is because rent fluctuates," he tells CNBC Make It. "I wanted it to stay at the same rate for the foreseeable future."
So in 2017, Dishongh purchased his first home, a 600-square-foot one-bedroom condo in Austin, Texas. He scored the place for $140,000, with a down payment of just $6,000, or about 4.2%.
Owning his own place also gave Dishongh the freedom to completely personalize it. He spent another $9,000 to renovate it top-to-bottom with custom-built cabinets, a wooden ceiling and a built-in desk that perfectly fits his tall frame.
Today, the 37-year-old, who earns over $100,000 a year between his full-time job as a senior front-end developer, his pet portrait business and working part-time at a doggy daycare, has a new goal: Pay off his mortgage as quickly as possible — hopefully within 10 years.
"I don't like debt. The only debt I have is this condo," he says. "I paid my truck off the same year I bought it."
To speed up the process, he rents his condo out on Airbnb and spends many of his nights sleeping in a camper he built himself in the back of his truck.
Originally, Dishongh wanted to live in a van full-time, travel the U.S. and work remotely. But after running the numbers, he realized it would take over two years for the costs to even out.
He came up with another solution: rent out his condo on Airbnb and spend most of his time living out of the solar-powered camper he built into the back of his 2018 Chevy Colorado. "Whenever I feel like it, I can just hop back there and have a mini adventure," he says.
Dishongh spent about $6,000 outfitting the camper, which feels like a miniature version of his condo, from the wood paneling to the retractable screen he uses to watch movies. Twinkling Christmas lights line the perimeter and a rolled-up camp mattress is stashed in the back. He also installed a battery into the bed of the truck to power fans, lights and other electronics, designed a ventilation system and lined the entire thing with hardwood flooring.
It's well-built but cramped, and there's no kitchen or bathroom. "Day-to-day tasks become really inconvenient," Dishongh admits. It's not unusual for him to cook his dinner campfire-style in the woods, warming a palm-sized cast-iron skillet over a single flame.
Still, the sacrifice is worth it, thanks to all of the extra income his Airbnb listing generates. "I make $1,700 a month if I just use my gym to shower," he says. He puts all of it toward the principal on his mortgage, and on average he contributes around $1,500 extra per month.
For Dishongh, the homebuying process was pretty straightforward. He realized that it made more financial sense for him to take on a fixed mortgage payment, rather than watch his rent continue to rise. He called up a realtor friend and immediately started looking at places.
At the time, Dishongh was paying $1,200 a month to rent an apartment and wanted to find a condo that would cost around the same, including extras like property taxes and homeowners association fees. He had enough in savings that he could comfortably cover a small down payment.
He looked at about 10 homes in Austin, but "what I was seeing was a lot of overpriced, investor-bought places that they were trying to flip, and I didn't want to be that sucker," he says. It didn't help that every time he made an offer at or close to the asking price, another buyer beat him out with a higher one.
Eventually, he found a condo that checked all his boxes: reasonably priced, low HOA fees, well-maintained grounds, not too old. Dishongh made an offer of the seller's asking price, and it was accepted within a few days.
Austin is one of the fastest-growing major cities in the U.S., and median home prices topping $400,000. But Dishongh was able to find a more affordable place by avoiding the more trendy neighborhoods.
"South Austin is a lot more saturated in terms of people wanting to live there, so I bought north," he says. "There's so much room for development here."
Even though he knew putting less than 20% down would mean paying for private mortgage insurance, Dishongh was comfortable with the percentage he chose. "The minimum was 3%, and I wanted to put more than that but didn't want to blow all of my savings," he says.
In addition to the down payment, Dishongh's other upfront costs included $150 for an inspection and about $1,300 in closing costs. He didn't own much furniture before moving in, so he didn't need to hire movers.
Here's how his typical monthly housing expenses break down:
- Mortgage: $984
- HOA fee: $240 (Covers water, trash and internet)
- Property taxes: $167 ($2,000 paid annually)
- Private mortgage insurance: $100
- Utilities: $60
- Homeowners insurance: $33 ($395 paid annually)
- Extra payments to mortgage principal: $1,500 (varies by month)
For Dishongh, the real work started after he closed on the condo. The low down payment allowed him to funnel more money into renovating his new place from top to bottom. Upfront, it was more an investment of time than money, he says.
As soon as the space was officially his, he decided to start customizing it. "I don't know what came over me, but I just started knocking everything down," he says. "I tore everything down without any plan to fix it."
Dishongh had a general idea of vibe he wanted and saw the condo as a "sandbox" to play in, he says: "I had all of these crazy ideas of things that I wanted to do growing up, and now I can actually do those things."
He spent around $9,000 to completely renovate the living room, kitchen and bedroom. Almost all of that went toward tools and materials, since he did nearly all the actual construction himself, from building a floating desk to attaching wood flooring to the ceiling to designing custom speaker mounts. He's not a carpenter by trade, so he spent countless hours watching YouTube tutorials, looking things up online and problem-solving as he went.
The effort proved worth it. "The best part of having my own place is that I can customize everything to my particular preferences," he says. "Everything is suited exactly as I like, which is so satisfying."
Even though Dishongh spends so much time in his camper, rather than the condo, he's content with his lifestyle for now. But he looks forward to the day he owns his condo in full.
"I'll feel comforted knowing that this is my space, and it's paid off and I don't have any debt to anybody," he says. "That freedom is my No. 1 goal right now."